My Race With Cancer Made Me Appreciate Every Day

Surviving cancer made me thankful for each day. After all, the human lifespan is limited.

The starting pistol for my cancer experience began with a phone call. I got word of my disease over the telephone because I was traveling and had asked to be notified if anything out of the ordinary showed up in the needle biopsy.

For all of us with cancer, there is a start date that we well remember. But what has been most surprising to me is that even though I’ve been given the NED award (no evidence of disease) I still feel as though I’m in the race.

The very rarity of my form of breast cancer makes it imperative to share the experience, the warning signs, the possible treatments and the hope for recovery with other men.

And that doesn’t stop with a clean bill of health. So even though I am eight years cancer free, I am never far from this new paradigm that has slammed into my life.

It’s true that the jolt of my diagnosis has softened dramatically over the years, but there really isn’t a single day that I’m not reminded that I am fortunate to be alive to tell this tale.

The jagged scar on my chest, where that ill-behaved breast once rested, is problematic for me. Due to the nerves being severed, I’ve had an ongoing reminder that often wakes me at night and sometimes affects my breathing. And while this doesn’t indicate any recurrence of my cancer, our imminent problem, it does have a nagging sort of presence that seems to shout “Hey, remember me? I’m still here!”

The truth is my race is on a linear track that doesn’t have an easily recognizable finish line to it. Unlike the traditional circular track where the scenery on every lap becomes familiar to us, this race is leading me straight into the future. 

Having breast cancer is certainly one of the most significant and challenging experiences in my life, but I must accept that not everything about it has been negative.

I’ve been prompted to see each day as a complete experience and not just another day surviving. So, while there may be no end in sight to my race with cancer, there is a clear finish line for the “cancer time” I’m willing to embrace. This notion of “living in the present moment” is deceptive in its simplicity and for the fact that the phrase has become part of the overused lexicon of modern slang.

I spent a year living in a Zen community in Hawaii. It was there that I was diagnosed with male breast cancer and had my mastectomy surgery. And it was there that I became comfortable with watching the hourglass of my life raining precious sand as my time on Earth ticked away — with or without cancer.

The average human lifespan used to be 30,000 days or about 82 years. In the United States today, that has unfortunately been downgraded to just 78 years. But I still feel that the original estimation is appropriate, and I have made it my intention to live that long. On the wall in my home office is a small, framed blackboard, and on it, as I write this, is the number 3,681.

If my cancer doesn’t return and I’m lucky in other important ways, that is how many days are hypothetically left in my life. Every morning, when I wake up, I walk to that board and thoughtfully subtract one digit. I pause for just a moment because my busy life is calling, and think about how I would like to spend the next 24 hours and how many minutes I’m willing to give my cancer in that time.

Then, I blow the chalk dust from my fingers and get on with my day.

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